When first experimenting with light, new photographers sometimes become overwhelmed with options for modifiers, and lighting patterns. But taking the time to slow down and experiment with basic lighting positions can really help you to understand how light behaves, and how it can affect the mood or feel of your images.
Basic Light Direction The angle and direction of light heavily affects how a subject is portrayed. We can increase or decrease tonal range, or give our pictures a different feel or mood, just by positioning the light source differently.
A light positioned in front of a subject (ie: at the same angle as the camera) will flatten the sense of depth. This is because light is hitting the subject from the same angle all the way along. For this reason, front light tends to be less interesting than side or back lighting. In general, it’s also not as flattering as light coming from the side. However, with the right modifier (such as a beauty dish), a front light can deliver bold, dynamic results.
Once we move our lights to the side, things start to get more interesting. A side light enhances shape and form, by increasing the tonal difference between the highlights and shadows. For this reason, side light can be used to give a subject a moody feel, accentuate curves, or help to depict its 3D nature.
Light coming from behind the subject is referred to as backlight. In the studio, back light is usually used as a secondary light source, rather than a key. Back light highlights the edges of a subject, and is often used to increase the separation between subject and background. For example, a backlight might hit the edge of a person’s hair, or the rim of a product, giving a ‘halo’ effect.
Classic Lighting Styles The ways that we can position and angle studio lights are endless, but there are some classic lighting positions that every studio photographer should know. These lighting styles can be used on their own, or as a base to build upon.
Paramount lighting is lighting pattern in which the light is positioned right in front of the subject, but up high. It is named after Paramount Pictures (the film company), because this is the type of lighting that they historically used to photograph leading actresses. Because of the high angle, this type of lighting accentuates cheekbones in portraits, and creates a small shadow under the nose. This shadow sort of resembles a butterfly, which is why Paramount lighting is also sometimes referred to as Butterfly Lighting.
Rembrandt lighting is a classic style of side-lighting, particularly used for portraits. This type of lighting requires the light to be positioned to the side and above the subject. This causes one side of the face to be brighter than the other, so a reflector (or a second light on low power) is used to add a bit of fill in the shadows. However, the key to Rembrandt lighting is to create a tiny triangle of light under the eye on the side of the face that is furthest from the key light. This style of lighting is popular because it requires minimal effort and equipment. It is named after the Dutch painter Rembrandt, who used this type of lighting in his paintings.
In terms of angle of light, Loop Lighting sits roughly halfway between Paramount and Rembrandt light. When lighting in this style, the light is positioned to the side of the subject, but not quite as high as for Paramount lighting. This angle creates a small shadow ‘loop’ under the nose. However, the shadow does not join up with the shadow on the cheek, as this is Rembrandt lighting.
Cutters and Reflectors
Sometimes we need to block or add more light to best capture our subjects, and this is where cutters and reflectors come in. Cutters (sometimes referred to as ‘blacks’) and reflectors (often referred to as ‘bounce’) are usually just black or white bits of cardboard or fabric. There are many types available in stores, of varying quality and price points, however you can often achieve exactly the same results with a bit or white or black card, or even a roll of aluminium foil. A black card absorbs light, and is often used to add contrast or define the edges of your subject. For example, adding a black card to the edge of a bottle of wine will create a dark edge, enhancing the shape and curve of the bottle. A white card will reflect light, bouncing it back onto your subject. For example, adding a white card to the side of a person’s face will even out the contrast and ‘fill’ the shadows. Just a simple set of white and black cards can really help a photographer to control and refine the way that light is hitting their subject.